Insomnia? Can't Sleep? What Does Charmaine Shepherd, A Functional Medicine Expert Advise?
Updated: Feb 6, 2019
What do you do when you can’t face another night of tossing and turning? After googling ‘why can’t I sleep’ and reading 100 articles that tell you to ‘just relax’ or spray some lavender on your pillow – you’re ready to scream. Staring at the clock, not able to sleep can be a very lonely place.
So, when you decide to reach out for help – where do you go? Do you make an appointment with your GP? Local holistic or 'functional health' adviser? Or try a meditation teacher?
I’m writing a series of articles interviewing health professionals and experts in the field to find out their opinions on what to do if you can’t get a good night’s sleep and why it’s become such an issue for so many of us.
Today, I spoke to Charmaine Shepherd, a biomedical scientist and her business partner Jean Dow, a medical herbalist who are based in Edinburgh, UK. Charmaine and Jean have been working together for 8 years at Cogmission, which uses a Functional Medicine approach to solve complex health conditions. This means that rather than focus on treating symptoms, they look for the underlying causes for disease.
Cogmission uses your blood lab results to identify health issues and coach you through personalised plans designed to relieve your symptoms, and help you understand how your nutrition choices might impact your brain. Today, Charmaine and I discussed sleep issues over the phone.
Michelle: Why do you think there’s such an increase in people struggling to sleep these days?
Charmaine: Modern life is very stressful and very stimulating which is leading to an epidemic of sleeplessness. In the past, as natural light receded, families huddled around candle light and lamps. These days we are exposed to artificial indoor lighting as well as computer and phone screens. Our brains are programmed to release the sleep hormone, melatonin, in response to a drop in lighting. Many of us are using computers and screens late into the night, thereby blocking this very important neurohormone from being released.
The stresses and pressures of modern life also drive up our levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, causing sleep disruption for many of us.
Michelle: At what point, do you feel someone struggling to sleep should see their GP or specialist doctor?
Charmaine: We know that sleep is critical to health. Even one night of poor sleep has been shown to affect cognitive health. We encourage patients to implement sleep hygiene but if they are still having difficulties with sleep, we would encourage them to reach out.
Michelle: Why should they choose someone like you over traditional GP?
Charmaine: Rather than just treat sleep issues with sleeping pills, we look for underlying health reasons why sleep may be disturbed, for example hypoglycaemia or adrenal gland issues. Although sometimes necessary, sleeping pills come with unwanted side-effects and have been linked to dementia. For this reason, we focus on natural sleep treatments by primarily addressing any underlying reasons for sleep disturbance.
Michelle: How does chronic sleep issues impact someone’s overall health?
Charmaine: A lack of sleep contributes to many health issues, but no other organ feels the effects more than the brain. Long term sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. More alarmingingly, there is growing evidence that long-term sleep deprivation is a major risk factor in the development of dementia.
Michelle: How do you feel about prescription sleeping pills?
Charmaine: Although necessary at times, sleeping pills often leave people feeling groggy the following day. Long-term use has been linked to an increased risk of developing dementia and other health conditions. Also, the body often grows accustomed to the medication, so many people require higher dosages over time to get the same effect.
Michelle: What about natural sleeping tablets like melatonin or Valerian root?
If used safely, natural sleep aids can help retrain the body into a natural sleep pattern. Addressing the underlying causes of sleep dysfunction is also often necessary to get lasting results.
Michelle: What role do hormones play in disrupting sleep?
Sex hormones as well as adrenal hormones can play havoc with our sleep patterns. High cortisol levels can lead to difficulties falling asleep, we call this “wired but tired”. Sex hormones, especially but not exclusively in women, can lead to chronic sleep deprivation. Investigating these hormones in sleep disturbance is often necessary.
Michelle: What are your top recommendations for people struggling to sleep?
● Limiting screen time the hour before bed as the light from screens inhibit the natural release of melatonin.
● Use blue light blocking glasses if using a computer or phone at night. Some devices have the option to block blue light.
● Make sure you are exposed to at least 30 minutes of daylight, as the body requires daylight to produce the building blocks for melatonin.
● Avoid eating a heavy meal up to 3 hours before bed time.
● Limit alcohol, limiting alcohol in the evenings. Alcohol is sedating but has a paradoxical effect of causing awakenings during the night., avoiding stimulation (late night news, stimulating TV shows) blackout blinds, regular routine
● Avoid caffeine in the afternoons and evenings if you have difficulty falling asleep
● Allow your mind to relax and unwind at least an hour before bedtime. If this is challenging to you, try journaling, relaxation breathing, progressive relaxation, guided imagery, listening to soft music, taking a relaxation bath, with lavender essential oils and Epsom salts is desired.
● Aim for 30-60 minutes of exercise daily to help support sleep, but don’t do it too close to bedtime if you know you’re prone to being over-stimulated by it.
● Keep a sleep routine. Go to sleep and arise at the same time each day, including weekends. Retire between 10 and 11pm for the healthiest melatonin production and restorative sleep.
If you’re ready to reach out for help on your sleep issues and would like to learn more about Functional Medicine from Charmaine and the team at Cogmission, please get in touch with her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
And look out for next week’s interview on sleep with Susan Earl, a meditation expert. Never tried meditation? Susan will share her top tips for beginners with us.
Thanks for reading!